The predominant question in traditional Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, for centuries past has been ‘How can I escape the wrath of a righteous God?’ In mediaeval Christendom it was an unquestioned belief that humanity was fallen as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve and was under the judgement of God and destined for hell. Christ was the answer because he had sacrificed his life to release us from that judgement. The official teaching of most churches is still within this framework, and many traditional believers continue to assert it.
The cultural background to this kind of Christianity was to a large extent the mediaeval feudal system. It was a strict class system: the seriousness of an offence was measured by the status of the person against whom it was committed. If a peasant committed some offence against the lord of the manor, it was punished more severely than if he had committed it against someone of his own class. To offend against a member of the higher aristocracy was even more serious. An offence against the king was high treason, punishable by death. The logic of this was that even the slightest offence against Almighty God was of infinite seriousness, calling for eternal punishment. Only the death of a completely sinless person could atone for it, and Christ, the Son of God, was that person. It was against this background that everyone, in Western Christendom at least, lived with a sense of being under the wrath of a righteous God. As it is expressed in the Book of Common Prayer funeral service: ‘In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O LORD, who for our sins art justly displeased?’
The problem with preaching this message today is that people do not live with a sense of being under the wrath of God. Evangelical preachers find that the gospel, the ‘good news’, must begin with the bad news: people must be persuaded of the reality of judgement before they can respond to the good news of the free offer of salvation to those who accept Christ as their Saviour. Moreover, most people today, probably even most Christians, do not believe in eternal hell. Some conservative evangelicals, quite logically, say that if you don’t believe in hell there is no point in preaching the gospel! But culture has moved on, and the Christ of this kind of preaching is no longer an answer to the question people are asking.
Another question often asked is: ‘How can I be saved from the mess my life is in?’. I remember from childhood a song often sung in prayer meetings:
‘I was once far away from the Saviour,
As vile as a sinner could be,
And I wondered if Christ the Redeemer
Could save a poor sinner like me.’
There were many others in the same vein, mostly dating from the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution uprooted many people from the simple pious life of the village church and planted them into the slums of the industrial towns. Many succumbed to the temptations of drink and gambling, and they fell into a life of poverty, crime, homelessness, or prostitution. Organisations like the Salvation Army and the various ‘City Missions’ addressed this problem and preached Christ as the Saviour who could offer forgiveness and a new life to the most degraded of human beings. The message is still relevant in many places today, especially to people who are living with homelessness, broken relationships or addiction. It has changed the lives of many. However, the majority of us today are reasonably comfortable with our life and do not feel that desperate need of regeneration.
For people in an affluent society the big question that often emerges is: ‘How can I have an authentic and meaningful life?’ There are innumerable books and groups offering people a better life – health, success, self-development or a deeper spirituality. Often it is Buddhism, or some ancient indigenous culture, an oriental guru or a Californian life coach that is offered as the answer rather than Christ. Even evangelicals now often try to interest people in the gospel by offering it as an answer to the question of the meaning of life – we work, we build a career and a family, we retire, grow old and die – but what does it all mean?
In classical antiquity there was a different question. Many people were obsessed with immortality: the question was ‘Is there life after death’? The early Fathers often show a view of Christ that saw him as primarily coming into the world to save human beings from the curse of mortality. Today, for some reason this question does not seem to be quite so important. It is true that many bereaved people still ask: ‘Will I meet my loved one again?’, and they see the gospel of resurrection as the answer to that question. However, for more and more people today this is not a central concern. Our scientific mindset makes it much more difficult to believe that the person can survive the death of the body, and we are more content to accept death as an inevitable reality and even an ecological necessity. I remember as a young man being quite shocked when a fellow ministerial student told me he had met Christians who did not believe in life after death. I couldn’t understand how any Christian could say that. Surely, I thought, for Christians the belief that this life is a preparation for heaven is fundamental. Today, I know more and more Christians who do not believe in personal survival after death. I have doubts about it myself, but it does not in any way negate my Christian faith. Rather than try to imagine heaven, I am content with the idea that we come from God and we die into God. Time is inherent in our perception of the world, but God is beyond time, and my short life is a unique moment in God’s eternity. In that sense it is an eternal reality, and I am agnostic as to what exactly that means.
All these different questions have some echo in the New Testament. The apostle Paul and others talk of humanity being under the judgement of God and of how Jesus on the cross became the atonement or propitiation for our sins. There is much debate today about quite what they – especially Paul – meant by this, and whether it is legitimate to read into it everything the later church has made of it. However, one of the central themes of the New Testament writers’ interpretation of the death of Jesus was certainly that of sacrifice, and there was some connexion between sacrifice and atonement for sin.
The idea that Christ is the answer to how an individual’s life can be turned around is certainly an important theme in the Gospels. The healing miracles of Jesus were nearly always for the benefit of people who were outsiders in some way – lepers, disabled people thought to be suffering for their sins, people possessed by demons, ‘unclean’ women, and so on – and their effect was to restore them to an accepted place in the family of God. There are examples of moral regeneration too, such as tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus.
The situation of a prosperous upstanding member of society looking for some further meaning in life seems to be reflected in the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus with the question ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ It is a rare example of the expression ‘eternal life’ in the Synoptic Gospels, but in the Gospel of John that is a major theme. It appears to mean both a life of fuller meaning and fulfilment and the promise of survival after death. It comes to a climax in the story of the raising of Lazarus and the saying of Jesus: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26). Here it seems that, in part at least, the interpretation of the meaning of Jesus is addressing the question of immortality that was so important in Hellenistic culture.
In the context of Jesus’ own ministry, undoubtedly the main question to which he was seen to be the answer was: ‘How can Israel be set free?’ This has roots in much of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures and is a major theme in the Synoptic Gospels. It is especially emphasised in Luke’s Gospel. At the beginning we have Mary, in the Magnificat, singing of how God ‘has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’ (Luke 1:54-55). Zechariah’s song of praise (Luke 1:68-79) is all about God looking favourably on his people and redeeming them, remembering his covenant with Abraham ‘to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.’ Simeon is described as ‘righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2: 25). At the end of the Gospel, the disciples on the road to Emmaus lament: ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21). When the disciples talked with Jesus after the resurrection the question they asked was ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6)
This, for the Jewish people at that time, was the burning question, and according to the book of Acts the apostles preached Christ as the answer to it. The astonishing, paradoxical good news was that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been condemned as a criminal and died a cursed death, was alive and was the true Messiah. This was not an answer people expected. Jesus didn’t lead an armed revolt against the Roman Empire and set the Jewish people free politically. He was, according to Matthew’s Gospel (1:21), the one who came ‘to save his people from their sins’. In his preaching he challenged the Jewish people to find their true liberation by seeking the kingdom of God and so becoming the people of God they were meant to be. The early Christian preachers soon came to realise that this possibility was for the whole world and not just for the Jewish people. It was the promise of a new creation, the breaking down of all class and racial distinctions and the reshaping of humanity in the image of God.
Today we are closer to that situation. For many of us the burning question is: ‘How can we human beings be saved from ourselves?’ Gross inequality and poverty, wars and terrorism, the increasing number of refugees escaping from conflict while the reaction to them threatens more conflict, the ever-present threat of nuclear warfare, the rapid deterioration of the planetary environment and the depressing lack of decisive action to correct it, all build up to a feeling that human life, at least in any civilised form, is severely threatened, if not doomed.
Many traditional believers have given up on any solution to this situation. The only hope, they believe, is that the faithful will be rescued from this temporal world and live forever in heaven. I do not believe that this is the central message of the biblical faith. The vision of the Hebrew prophets, culminating in the message and story of Christ, is of God’s will being done on earth. Only a fundamental change in consciousness and culture can save humanity from the threat it faces today. The challenge for Christians is not to persuade everybody else to accept the Christian religion. It is, in a deeper sense, to show that the way of Christ, however expressed, is the answer to the all-important question of today, and to have the faith to believe we can all discover it and practise it before it is too late.